The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival by Ken Wheaton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Father Steve Sibille has returned to his bayou home to take charge of St. Peter's Church in Grand Prairie. Grand Prairie is a tiny backwater town, full of the (un)usual small town characters: senior citizens who hang out at Wal-Mart, teenage altar girls, and the daughter of the former pastor. There's also Miss Rita, a Negro centenarian who helped raise Steve and his siblings, and who now lives in a nursing home, where Steve slips her whiskey, cracklin's, and other taboo food whenever he can. And then there is Father Mark, a gay priest who has a crisis of conscience about his priesthood and homosexuality, literally on Fr. Steve's doorstep. As if all that isn't enough, the Reverend BP arrives with full intent to poach Fr. Steve's Catholic congregation to his Pentecostal church. At Miss Rita's suggestion, Fr. Steve decides to organize a festival to bring his congregation together. And so, the First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival is born. It is not an easy birth.
I bought this book a few years ago, after browsing through a table full of books at Sam's Club. I have to say, it is far outside my usual realm of fantasy and sci-fi, but whatever it was that told me to buy it, was very, very correct. I devoured the book in just a few days. It is laugh out loud funny in some places, and teary eyed poignant in others.
The characters are well written, and relatable, even if you are not from bayou country. Those who were raised Catholic will recognize pretty much the entire parish, from the teenage altar girl with a bit of a crush on Fr. Steve, to the elderly women who cook him more food than he could possibly need and who flutter around him after Mass. And if you are not Catholic, you'll enjoy them as well, as they are quite the interesting bunch.
Setting is somewhat secondary to the story, which is truly character driven. The town of Grand Prairie, though never described in minute detail, springs to life with its inhabitants. There is a real sense of small town lifestyle there.
I can't go into too much detail about the internal crises that flow throughout the book without giving too much away, but they are handled deftly and with the same attention as the rest of the story. When it hits, you realize that maybe the story wasn't quite what you expected, but it provides a nice, satisfying end.
While some may be put off by the open treatment of homosexuality, and the personal demons that a priest, straight or gay, may need to live with, everything is treated in a straightforward and mature manner. There is nothing "racy" or "dirty" about it. The story is human, compelling, and there are lessons here for everyone. I am very glad I decided to pick this one up.
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